Tuesday, July 10, 2012

All-time Best Theater

Here’s a topic that’s been popping up a lot lately: What are the best musicals of all time or what are your favorite musicals? As a theater critic I get to see a lot, and frankly I’m a much bigger fan of non-musical than musical theater, but I seem to watch more of the singing and dancing kind than the other kind. That’s a topic I’ll touch on later.

For starters, I’m not exactly in love with most of the musicals that are most popular with the general public. The Sound of Music? Nah. Too sweet and corny despite some heavy subject matter. The King and I and South Pacific?  Racist and xenophobic. Cats? Give me a break. I prefer something with a little meat to it, and if it’s not uplifting and happy, so be it.
Les Miserables 25th anniversary touring company. photo by Deen van Meer.

Here’s a dozen of my favorites:
  1. Les Misérables
  2. Cabaret
  3. Fiddler on the Roof
  4. West Side Story
  5. Rent
  6. Miss Saigon
  7. Ragtime
  8. Sweeny Todd
  9. A Little Night Music
  10. Man of La Mancha (I have some doubts about this one)
  11. Jesus Christ Superstar
  12. Hair (doubts about this one too, but I love the music and the energy)

There’s also a personal favorite that I didn’t list because it is a small and somewhat intimate musical (no big production numbers, no set changes and no dancing) that earned a kind of cult status off-Broadway back in the mid-1990s but never made the big time (not yet, anyway, but it’s opening in London in the fall, so it’s not dead yet). It’s The Last Session, music and lyrics by Steve Schlachlin and book by Jim Brochu.

Picking best non-musicals is a little more difficult because I can’t list many that would probably fall toward the top if I had seen them, but I haven’t. I don’t live in New York and couldn’t afford tickets if I did, and many of the best dramas and comedies are too dark or too intellectual or too far-out to make it to regional theaters. As a typical example of why many good plays never make it to community theaters beyond the major cities, I saw a college production of Angels in America with an audience of about 20. This compares to a college production in the same town of The Sound of Music that sold out every performance. Schmaltz and good times sells; serious drama not so much.  I’ve never seen Ice Man Cometh or Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and I’ve seen Death of a Salesman only on television, never live. There are probably others that should be in the top 10 that I’ve yet to see.

David Wright, Daniel Guttenberg, Jason Haws, Christian Doyle, Dennis Rolly in The Seafarer at Harlequin Productions, Olympia, Washington.

With that in mind, favorite non-musicals I’ve actually seen are:
  1. Radio Golf (hoping someday to see the rest of Wilson’s plays)
  2. Raisin in the Sun
  3. Hamlet
  4. Macbeth
  5. Clybourne Park
  6. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  7. Sins of the Mother
  8. The Seafarer
  9. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
  10. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  11. How I Learned to Drive
  12. Oleanna
  13. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)
  14. Stop Kiss
  15. Our Town
Since I included a little-known play in an addendum after the musical list I’ll allow myself one here. A few  years back I saw The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McCraney at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, and it was one of the most astounding plays I’ve ever seen.  It’s an extremely intense three-actor play that investigates African myths through the eyes of working class African-American brothers. It is presented with a minimalistic set — at the Rep the set consisted of a pile of automobile tires —and the characters actually recite stage directions, something I’ve never seen done in any other play but which was almost magically effective.

I’d love to see readers comment with their own picks of best shows.


Gabi Clayton said...

As dark and uncomfortable and as it is, I would have to add "Terminus" to your list of non-musical plays.

pug said...

I would have to add to your list, which I agree with a whole lot of,
Passing Strange as my favorite musical.
As for non musicals, Equivocation, The Weir, and One Flea Spare.

Bev Sykes said...

We agree on most musicals, but I know it's blasphemous, but I don't much like "Rent." I'm also kind of tired of "West Side Story." But that little musical you mentioned in the paragraph, the one opening in London...now THERE's a musical! (We hope to make it to London, but I'm afraid the money isn't going to be there after Europe and flying to Boston to see "Paragon Park," the new musical that our daughter has orchestrated.)